How Point Shaving Works

An explainer, after two players and an ex-coach are charged with fixing games

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In the wake of federal authorities charging two former University of San Diego basketball players and an ex-assistant coach with being part of a plot to fix games, we've gotten curious about point-shaving. Specifically:  how is it done?

First a primer: Point shaving, unlike throwing games, doesn't mean letting the other team win. It just means making sure your team fails to cover the point spread--a missed layup here, a bad pass there, a clanked free throw at the end of regulation. CCNY won the national championship in 1950 despite shaving points. The one downside: point shaving by an NCAA athlete is a federal crime.

Step 1: Find a player

Players in need of extra spending money are invariably tempting targets for gamblers. A 1985 Sports Illustrated report says John Williams, a central figure in the point shaving that ended the school's basketball program, "received $900 for helping make sure Tulane failed to cover the 10-point spread it was favored by over Southern Mississippi," then took "$4,500 for helping ensure that the team lose the Feb. 20 game to Memphis State  by more than the seven-point spread." Once you have one player, it become easier to recruit others. The Associated Press says the Arizona State point shaving scandal of the mid-1990s started as one teammate helping out another. "Deep in debt from gambling, Stevin Smith asked Arizona State teammate Isaac Burton Jr. in 1994 if he would miss some free throws against Oregon State, if needed." That marked the start of "one of the worst sports betting scandals in U.S. history," one that ended with both players in jail.

Step 2: Call in the fix

Players don't even have to play to do what gamblers want. A player on the University of Toledo football team, for instance, "was offered $10,000 to sit out a football game," according to USA Today, while others were offered groceries, electronics, and clothes to do the same thing. The scrutiny affixed to line movements makes it difficult to call in the fix every night. In the Arizona State case, Smith was paid $20,000 with the understanding he'd influence four games of the mob's choosing. Looking back at the line movements prior to San Diego's 2009 game against UC-Riverside, gambling website Covers observes several unusual patterns.Not only was there "rapid line movement at each of the 11 offshore sportsbooks recorded," but "by tipoff, Riverside was favored by 1-point at most books," after starting out as two-point underdogs. Mobster Henry Hill, later the subject of Goodfellas, orchestrated point shaving at Boston College during the 1978-1979 basketball season. He explained the dynamic between fixer and fixee to Sports Illustrated.

It cost me $2,500 per player per game—except when they screwed up and I didn't give them anything or cut them back. As a complimentary service, I bet money for the players when they so requested. We really had our ups and downs, but when the last pass had been thrown out of bounds, I had won on six of the games, lost on three, and made between $75,000 and $100,000. Not bad for 11 weeks' work. A game or two I might have cleared only $3,500, but so what?

Step 3: Hope you don't get caught

Point shaving by an NCAA is a federal crime, and the sentences have been stiff.  Rick Kuhn did 28 months for his involvement in the BC fix. Sherman White, one of the stars on the CCNY team, served a year at Riker's Island.

Of course, it does let you go pro earlier, after a fashion.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.